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Universities in Hong Kong

Outgoing HKU head calls visit to Occupy protesters the ‘defining moment’ of his term

In year-end message to campus community, vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson also highlights school’s improved performance in global rankings since he took over

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 December, 2017, 9:29am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 December, 2017, 9:09pm

Outgoing University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson called his visit to protesters during the 2014 Occupy movement the “defining moment” of his presidency, as he highlighted the school’s improved performance in global rankings under his leadership in his final year-end message.

In an eight-page letter to the campus community on Wednesday, Mathieson, who will depart next month to take the helm at Scotland’s Edinburgh University, said his challenge during the 79-day Occupy protests was to adhere to his principles and those of the university to respect freedom of speech while also respecting the law and, most importantly, to ensure the safety of all HKU members and the public.

The Briton said he had no regrets about visiting the occupied site in Admiralty with Chinese University vice-chancellor Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu on that “famous night” on October 2, 2014.

The protesters had erupted in cheers and applause at the university heads’ arrival. Mathieson urged them to keep their cool, avoid conflict and take care of themselves, winning public acclaim for helping ease tensions.

In his fourth year-end message, Mathieson said: “[The visit] was a defining moment of my presidency, and if we helped to prevent escalation, as many have said we did, I am delighted.”

On the influence of politics on university life, he said: “Too often, events at HKU have been politicised, sometimes cynically so by those with vested interests.”

Mathieson said he hoped that the focus in the future could be on the excellence of the oldest university in the city, and of other local universities.

The former dean of the University of Bristol’s medicine and dentistry faculty took the helm at HKU in April 2014, five months before the outbreak of the Occupy protests. He shocked the city in February this year with his abrupt resignation, two years before his contract expired in 2019.

Mathieson’s premature departure followed years of tension and clashes between the university’s governing body and students amid allegations of political interference in academic freedom at Hong Kong’s premier higher learning institution.

Outgoing HKU vice chancellor Peter Mathieson won’t wait for successor to be hired

The outgoing vice-chancellor, who earns an estimated HK$5.8 million a year, will take a huge pay cut after moving to the Scottish university, but he will be joining a globally more prestigious institution – Times Higher Education’s latest ranking of universities put HKU at No 43, while Edinburgh sits at No 27.

Mathieson raised the issue of HKU’s global ranking at the beginning of his message, which came with three charts showing its placing over the past years by ranking compilers Times Higher Education, QS and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Referring to those charts, he said that when he arrived in 2014, the university was falling in all three of the world’s major international league tables, but now as he was leaving, it was rising.

“Let me reiterate my often-stated attitude to rankings and league tables: we must never set policy or strategy to satisfy any particular ranking’s criteria, but if we do the right things and focus on excellence in all that we do, improved rankings will surely follow,” Mathieson said.

In the final paragraphs of his message, the president returned to the topic of school rankings.

He said that on all three of these lists, “we are the highest ranked of Hong Kong’s universities, and in all three our position has improved in the last two years”.

Mathieson also boasted of his and his colleagues’ “strong leadership” of the institution, citing the dental school as an example.

When he arrived at HKU, he said, the faculty of dentistry was “a very unhappy place with a culture of allegation and counter-allegation being made between staff members”.

“With some strong leadership from me and from [the faculty’s dean] Professor [Thomas] Flemmig, we addressed this poisonous culture and took steps to end it. I am pleased to say that things rapidly improved.”

In final remarks, Mathieson gave thanks to students, staff, alumni and friends of the university for their help and support.

“I have worked hard for the university throughout my time here. I have always done my very best to adhere to the principles of a modern, internationally credible university and to stand up for what I believe in,” he said.

“Be optimistic, positive, bold, innovative, but above all be proud of HKU. This is a superb university, and it has been my honour to be part of it.”

Dr William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of the university’s academic staff association, questioned whether Mathieson was trying to play up his accomplishments ahead of his Edinburgh move.

Cheung criticised the president for seemingly claiming credit for preventing the escalation of the Occupy protests.

“He was only speaking to a group of protesters, and there were also people who were not students there at the Occupy protests,” Cheung said.

The chairman also said Mathieson was being “ignorant” for stressing rankings so much. Cheung said there was a consensus among academics that there should not be so much emphasis on rankings as they could easily change according to the weighting of different criteria used by different ranking companies.

“I think he was making use of HKU’s high rankings to highlight his contributions in these four years, as he has not many achievements to speak of,” Cheung said.